Middle East’s Next Oil War? Israel Threatens Lebanon Over Hezbollah and Natural Gas

Israel has threatened to invade Lebanon amid a recent spat over natural resources and militant groups that, once again, raised tensions between the longtime foes.

Addressing the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University on Wednesday, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Lebanon’s latest plans to drill in a disputed offshore oil and gas field known as Block 9 were “very, very challenging and provocative,” according to Reuters. In the same speech, the far-right minister threatened to wage a full-scale war against Lebanon if Hezbollah launched any attacks against Israel. The Iran-backed Shiite Muslim movement warned it would defend Lebanon’s natural resources at any cost.

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“We reiterate our firm and unequivocal position in decisively confronting any aggression against our oil and gas rights, defending Lebanon’s assets and protecting its wealth,” Hezbollah told Newsweek in an email statement.

GettyImages-911372182 Israeli soldiers (top left) and United Nations peacekeepers (top right) look on as Lebanese supporters of Hezbollah attend a rally against President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in the southern Lebanese border village of Alma al-Shaab, on January 28. Palestinian groups and Hezbollah, along with their Arab and Muslim allies, see Jerusalem as the capital of the U.N.-recognized State of Palestine. MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Lebanon did not recognize Israel’s 1948 creation, which caused a mass exodus of Palestinians and a regional war between the majority-Jewish state and its Arab, mostly Muslim neighbors. Israel has invaded Lebanon twice, the first time during the 15-year Lebanese civil war and a second time in 2006 in response to Hezbollah’s cross-border raids. In both instances, Hezbollah led the local resistance against Israel, which ultimately withdrew.

In the latest crisis, Israel has warned foreign companies not to invest in Lebanese plans to explore the Block 9 offshore oil reserve located on the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon. Lebanon awarded bids last month to France’s Total Sa, Italy’s Eni SpA and Russia’s Novatek PJSC to drill for oil and gas in blocks 4 and 9 within Lebanon’s exclusive economic zone, but Lieberman warned this was a “grave mistake” and “contrary to all the rules” because Block 9 belonged totally to Israel, Bloomberg News reported, citing an Israeli Defense Ministry statement.

Lieberman also threatened to respond to Hezbollah aggression with a “full-strength” invasion, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported. He vowed, “If in Israel they sit in shelters, then in the next fighting all of Beirut will be in shelters.” These comments have been met with fury back in the Lebanese capital.

“We need to be aware of what the Israeli enemy is plotting against Lebanon, especially with the support of those who are working internally and externally to provide a climate of harmony with the Israeli threats to attack Lebanon,” Lebanese President Michel Aoun said Thursday in a statement, according to Lebanon’s official National News Agency.

“Lebanon will counter these Israeli claims by diplomatic means, while asserting its right to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity by all the available means,” he added.

2018-01-31T142558Z_2_LYNXMPEE0U0TA_RTROPTP_3_NATGAS-LEBANON-ISRAEL Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (center) is seen during a graduation ceremony for Israeli air force pilots at the Hatzerim air base in southern Israel, on June 30, 2016. Lieberman’s harsh comments have at least temporarily united Lebanese leaders at a time of political strife. Amir Cohen/Reuters

Lebanon was still reeling from a dispute between supporters of Aoun, who represented the mostly Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, leader of the Shiite Muslim Amal Movement. Both former civil war foes were members of the pro-Hezbollah March 8 Alliance, but a new dispute emerged when Aoun promoted dozens of army officers without the approval of one of Berri’s aides. It escalated when Aoun’s son-in-law and party head Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil was caught on video calling Berri “a thug,” as Lebanon’s The Daily Star reported.

After massive protests rocked Beirut and beyond, Bassil expressed regret, and Berri contacted Aoun Thursday in an effort to unite the two leaders in the face of Lieberman’s recent warnings. They agreed to meet Tuesday to discuss the crisis. A day before, the National News Agency reported three Israeli gunboats violating Lebanon’s southern maritime boundary near Ras Naqoura, citing an army communiqué. It would be at least the second such incident in two days.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, head of the majority-Sunni Muslim Future Movement that led the opposition March 14 Alliance, was reportedly present during the phone call between Aoun and Berri. Hariri, who himself was the subject of an international drama involving Saudi Arabia and his brief resignation in November, stood by the two.

“We are facing a major aggression with regard to Lebanon’s oil wealth, especially in Block 9, and Lebanon will have clear and decisive steps in this regard,” Hariri said Thursday in a statement.

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